Strengthening the frayed links with their rich history is the chief motivation behind Riccarton Knights’ first-ever Old Boys’ Day this Saturday.

The special occasion coincides with 20th anniversary celebrations for the club’s most recent top-grade triumph – the 2004 grand final victory over Linwood – with the Knights’ ISC Canterbury Cup (1pm) and CRL Whitehead Plumbing & Gas Men’s Premiership (2.45pm) teams taking on the Keas in a Crosbie Park double-header.

“Being the 20th anniversary of Riccarton winning the Pat Smith Trophy, we decided to make that team the centrepiece of the day, and obviously we chose our game against Linwood because we played against them in the grand final that year,” Knights president and 2004 grand final winner Shane Tamatea says.

“We’ll have a set-up on the sideline for the old boys – not just the ’04 guys, but any of the old boys coming down – so there will be an area for them to come and mingle and tell stories.”

The Knights premiers team will take the field in a replica jersey based on the 2004 strip with the names of the 17 players from that year’s grand final on the back. The heroes of ’04 will have the opportunity to purchase their corresponding jersey while the remaining jerseys will be auctioned off, with all proceeds going back to the club.

A handful of overseas-based members of the 2004 line-up are unable to make the trip back for Old Boys’ Day, but champion halfback Aaron Whittaker will be returning home from the Gold Coast for the weekend.

“It’s always a great occasion to come back for a reunion, not long ago I was back for the 30-year reunion for the 1993 Canterbury side,” Whittaker says.

“It’s always good to celebrate the times you’ve had and it will be good to get down and watch the premier reserves at one o’clock and then the premiers against our old foes, Linwood. It will be brilliant.”

Tamatea opened up on the Knights’ desire to shine a light on the club’s long-term narrative, as well acknowledging the milestone of one of the greatest days in their modern history.

Riccarton first earned senior status from 1931-33 and fielded teams in Canterbury Rugby League’s top tier in 1939-42 (it was the junior partner in a wartime amalgamation with Hornby and Rakaia that won the ’42 chamionship), 1944, 1947-52, 1976, 1996-97, and in 1998 and 2000 as Riccarton-Lincoln, while the Knights have been a permanent standalone fixture in the premiership since 2001.

“The 2004 team will be the focal point on Saturday, but in terms of the Old Boys’ Day, it’s about trying to reconnect with our past – I feel like we’d lost that,” he admits.

“At other clubs like Halswell and Hornby and Linwood, they’ve got their stalwarts that are still around helping out or coming to watch and having a beer at the clubrooms.

“That’s something we’re trying to recreate and get a bit of history back at the club, especially coming up to our 100th [anniversary]. We want to let everyone know Riccarton has been around for a while, because a lot of people don’t know the history of our club.”

Knights’ golden era

Riccarton’s 33-14 victory over Linwood in the 2004 grand final was the culmination of a dominant period for the club, having taken out the Pat Smith Trophy for the first time with a then-record 40-point win when the clubs contested the premiership decider two years earlier.

“In the early-2000s, us and Linwood were at the bottom of the ladder but we both crept up. We had a good rivalry – when we played Linwood, that was the game we wanted to win,” recalls Tamatea, a 300-game Knights legend.

“The team we had in ’04 was pretty talented. For me personally, I got to play alongside a couple of my childhood mates in that side and getting to score a try in the grand final was pretty cool as well.

“And being able to win another grand final at a young age is something I look back on now, it’s so hard to make them…not so much for Linwood, though.”

Coached by Brent ‘Jigsy’ Ringdahl, who won a title with Papanui in 1998 and would go on to oversee another at Hornby in 2006, Riccarton’s climb to the CRL summit gathered steam with the acquisition of former Kiwi, Illawarra Steelers, Wakefield Trinity and Auckland Warriors half Whittaker from Halswell.

The Knights won the Gore Cup (competed for by teams who missed the finals) in 2001 before surging to the top of the premiership ladder in 2002 with a 13-1 regular-season record. With skipper Whittaker shattering grand final records via individual hauls of five tries and 32 points, and another former New Zealand Test star marshalling the pack in the No.13 in Logan Edwards, the Knights romped to a 54-14 defeat of the Keas in the decider.

Both clubs missed the 2003 grand final – Whittaker had battled through the campaign with a double hernia that required off-season surgery – but regrouped to battle for the Pat Smith Trophy again in 2004.

“It was brilliant for a club like Riccarton to see success and it was great to be a part of,” enthuses Whittaker, whose stint with the Knights came to an end in 2004.

“It was great to finish off on that note. My brother [Jeff] became president of Halswell and that was the reason I ended up going back [in 2005] – he asked me to come back, otherwise I would’ve stayed at Riccarton.

“There was a few differences between [the Knights teams in] 2002 and 2004, so to fit those jigsaw pieces back in under ‘Jigsy’, it was amazing.”

The Knights had eight survivors from that historic maiden success – Whittaker, Tamatea (a centre in the 2002 grand final and hooker in ’04), Tim Gleeson, Glen Barron, Colin Ritchie, Vince Whare, Jamie Lester and Riki Barclay – still on board when the team ran out for the 2004 decider.

The likes of 17-year-old future Kiwi and Warrior Lewis Brown, Kyle and Kasi Leka, and talented Burnham halfback Koro Hati emerged to fill the gaps. The Knights advanced to their second grand final with an extra-time win over Kaiapoi in the major semi, while the Keas walked the playoffs tightrope in devastating style, thrashing the Hornets and Bulldogs to earn their spot.

Unlike the start-to-finish rout of 2002, the rivals engaged in a gripping contest. The Knights held a slender 16-14 lead at halftime, scoring three tries to the two scored by dynamic Keas second-rower Chris Bamford.

But Riccarton dominated the second stanza – with Hati, an Army mechanic who had returned from Waiouru in time for the match, the standout performer of a 33-14 result with a brace of tries and match-sealing one-pointer.

“[2002 and 2004] were contrasting grand finals,” says Whittaker, who was 36 at the time of the latter clash.

“To be only 16-14 up at halftime, it was a matter of a bit more experience and a bit of patience. On that particular day, Koro Hati had a blinder – and I hope I took a bit of emphasis off him and attracted a few players so he could do his thing, he scored a couple of tries and kicked a nice field goal as well.

“At the end of the day, what ‘Jigsy’ did as coach, and I love my fitness too – the fitter you are, the more you can do and the better you become as an individual and a team – I think that shone through in the last 40 [minutes] and we got over the top of them.”

While the 2004 grand final represented a double dose of disappointment for a Linwood side chasing its first premiership since 1995, those high-stakes losses galvanised the Keas for their ensuing period of success.

Linwood would feature in the ensuing five grand finals, setting a new record with a 66-10 demolition of Hornby in 2005 and collecting another premiership in 2008 by defeating Papanui.

“That was a pretty special time for us [in 2004] as well, getting to a grand final,” says Andrew Auimatagi, who was the Keas’ hooker on grand final day in ’02 and lock in ’04.

“The pain of losing grand finals, you learn a lot. We had some good young players coming through linking with some older heads, like Teni Tuli and Damien Horgan.

“It was cool for some of us younger guys to come through together and play with the older guys we admired as kids – it’s something we reflect on, how lucky we were to learn off them.

“I think that helped launch us into the later years and some of the things we achieved.”

Like the Knights, the Keas had significant turnover from 2002. Auimatagi, Bamford, Damian and Nathan Horgan, Siona Tuiloma, Alex Mealamu and Tuli, who tragically passed away in 2015, were their only players to turn out in both deciders.

“[2004] was my first year playing in the Bulls, and myself, Jamie McDonald, Paul McDonald, we lost in the semi-final to [North Harbour] – Brent Webb came back and scored four tries and knocked us out of the Bartercard Cup – and that meant we were available to play in the club grand final,” 2016-19 Keas premiership-winning coach Auimatagi adds.

“Vince Whare came back for Riccarton, he was massive for them and a great teammate in the Bulls. I remember it being really competitive in the first half, but Riccarton had some really good players from ’02, plus young guys like Lewie Brown.”

Chasing premiership No.3

This weekend’s 20-year commemoration entails several common threads tying back to 2004.

Kyle Leka, a promising teenager when he featured in Riccarton’s premiership win that year (and a tryscorer for Linwood in the 2005 grand final), is still running around for the Knights’ premiers team – alongside his son, five-eighth Joel.

Meanwhile, old club foes and representative teammates Tamatea and Auimatagi – who are both always a strong chance of pulling on the boots at some stage of the season – are now the presidents of their respective clubs.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Shane,” Auimatagi says.

“Initially it was quite a competitive relationship in the early-2000s with our teams going head-to-head, but then I played alongside him for the Bulls and got to know him over the years.

“It’s pretty awesome to see the work he’s done over the years at Riccarton, a real clubman and a great leader for their community – it’s great to see he’s still investing a lot and has got a lot of people behind him.”

While Linwood rose from its twin grand final defeats in the first half of the 2000s to win nine of the last 19 CRL premierships (and play in a further five grand finals) – including seven of the last eight – Riccarton is yet to add to its title tally…or even reach another Pat Smith Trophy Challenge decider.

But a third premiership remains a burning ambition for Tamatea and everyone involved with the club.

“Every year we turn up, train hard in the pre-season with that goal of getting to the grand final,” Tamatea asserts.

“Only two teams can make it and Linwood being that powerhouse club since back then, all the way through, have dominated the competition.

“We’ve had our times over the years where we’ve come close, but that extra step to you have to take to get to the grand final is bloody tough.

“Being the 20th year since our last win, it would be a pretty cool headline to make it in 2024.”

The Knights have begun the season promisingly, bolstered by several key recruits and taking out the inaugural CRL Whitehead Plumbing & Gas Pre-season Competition in March.

After hard-fought losses to the Panthers and Hornets in the opening fortnight of the CRL Whitehead Plumbing & Gas Men’s Premiership, they got off the mark during last weekend’s Magic Round at
Ngā Puna Wai with a 24-14 win over Eastern Eagles.

Rolling the defending champs on Old Boys’ Day at Crosbie Park would provide a significant kick-start to a drought-breaking grand final drive.

“We’ve had some players come across to Riccarton which is pretty exciting, and to win the pre-season tournament was a big plus for us. But we know that’s just the pre-season and the real stuff happens now.

“We started off slow with a couple of losses but we’re on the board now and hopefully we’ll keep moving forward – we’re just out here moving forward, trying to win some footy games, like everybody else.”



Riccarton Knights 33 (Koro Hati 2, Tim Gleeson, Jermahl Carroll, Shane Tamatea, Jamie Lester tries; Aaron Whittaker 4 goals; Hati field goal) defeated Linwood Keas 14 (Chris Bamford 2 tries; Leon Boyd 3 goals) at Addington Showgrounds. Half-time: Riccarton 16-14. Referee: Darren Hopewell.

RICCARTON KNIGHTS – 1 Tim Gleeson, 2 Matt Kirdy, 3 Kasi Leka, 4 Lewis Brown, 5 Jermahl Carroll, 6 Aaron Whittaker, 7 Koro Hati, 17 Sean James, 9 Shane Tamatea, 10 Vince Whare, 11 Kyle Leka, 12 Jamie Lester, 13 Riki Barclay. Interchange: 8 Malala Pua’avase, 14 Glen Barron, 15 Jack Muir, 16 Colin Ritchie. Coach: Brent Ringdahl.

LINWOOD KEAS – 1 James McDonald, 2 Paddy McDonald, 3 Siona Tuiloma, 4 Eugene English, 5 John Aranga, 6 Jayton Manuel, 7 Leon Boyd, 8 Damian Horgan, 9 Carl Williams, 10 Teni Tuli, 11 Nathan Horgan, 12 Chris Bamford, 13 Andrew Auimatagi. Interchange: 14 Stanley Bradbrook, 15 Mark Woodward, 16 Alex Mealamu, 17 Terry Rota. Coach: Kenny O’Brien


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